Buck “Wailing Mailman” Hill was a renowned jazz saxophonist in D.C. — and a letter carrier by day.
Buck Hill, a renowned saxophonist and mainstay of the Washington jazz scene for more than 60 years and who was known as the “Wailing Mailman” for his day job with the U.S. Postal Service, died March 20 at his home in Greenbelt, Md. He was 90.
A daughter, Robin Hill, confirmed the death and said her father had been treated in recent years for heart and prostate ailments.
Mr. Hill was a native Washingtonian who never left his home town, despite having the talent and offers to make a bigger splash. He began performing in the 1940s, when the clubs and theaters along the District’s U Street corridor were known as the “Black Broadway.”
Long considered Washington’s premier tenor saxophonist, Mr. Hill shared the stage with jazz royalty such as Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis and Max Roach. Whenever saxophonist Sonny Stitt came to Washington, he sought out Mr. Hill for friendly “cutting sessions,” or tests of a musician’s improvisational skill.
Mr. Hill was known for a round, robust tone on his primary instrument, tenor saxophone. (He occasionally played the clarinet and soprano saxophone.) He also composed many tunes, some of which appeared on the dozen or so albums he recorded from 1978 to 2006. Critics discovering him for the first time often considered him a hidden star.
“One of the jazz world’s many local legends,” a reviewer wrote for Toronto’s Globe and Mail in 1981, “he is a Washington mailman by day, so it’s tempting to suggest that Hill really delivers the goods, that he puts his stamp on everything he plays, and perhaps even that his arrival is overdue.
“What’s better, it’s all true. He’s a terrific player.”
Mr. Hill was reputedly offered jobs in bands led by Gillespie and Davis, and he performed in Europe with Washington singer Shirley Horn, but he preferred to stay close to home.
“Buck did not like to travel,” Nasar Abadey, a drummer who worked with Mr. Hill for more than 30 years, said in an interview. “He did not like a lot of attention. He just wanted to plant his feet and play the music.”
Mr. Hill often showed up for work at the post office at 4 a.m. to practice his saxophone before sorting and delivering the mail. He retired in 1998 after more than 40 years with the Postal Service. He also drove a cab for many years.
On nights and weekends, Mr. Hill could be found in the city’s leading jazz clubs, from the Showboat Lounge in the 1950s to Blues Alley, Harold’s Rogue & Jar, One Step Down, Pigfoot and — on a revived 21st-century U Street NW — Twins Jazz.
“For some reason Buck has always decided to stay,” drummer Billy Hart, a Washington native, told The Washington Post in 1980. “When I was back in town with Stan Getz a few years ago, I went to see Buck. By this time I assumed I would hear the flaws in his playing that I hadn’t heard when I was a kid. But I heard him play and he was greater than I even remembered, and I was playing with one of the greatest saxophonists. It’s a mysterious thing, but Buck is a true creative genius.”
Roger Wendell Hill was born Feb. 13, 1927, in Washington. His father was a bookbinder at the Government Printing Office.
As a child, Mr. Hill admired the space-age comic-strip hero Buck Rogers — “and when your first name is Roger . . . ,” he once told The Post, explaining the origin of his nickname.
He began to play the soprano saxophone at 13, then took up the clarinet and the larger tenor saxophone. By the time he was 15, he was playing at such U Street clubs as the Bohemian Caverns and Republic Gardens. He graduated from the District’s old Armstrong High School — the alma mater of pianist and jazz bandleader Duke Ellington.
After World War II, Mr. Hill played in Army bands before returning to Washington.
“I felt if I went to New York, I could play,” he told The Post in 1980. “But I didn’t see how I could do that with a family. I had children to support.”
Survivors include his wife of 68 years, Helen Weaver Hill of Greenbelt; two daughters, Deborah Campbell of Alexandria, Va., and Robin Hill of Washington; a stepson, Stephen Walker of Laurel, Md.; two granddaughters; and two great-grandsons.
Mr. Hill’s most recent recording, “Relax,” featuring jazz standards and four of his own compositions, appeared in 2006. He continued to perform in clubs and restaurants well into his 80s.
“Music is captivating, compelling,” he told The Post in 2000. “After a while, you just have to do it, and you can’t stop.”
Buck Hill played the soprano and tenor saxophones and the clarinet. He also worked for the Postal Service for 40-plus years.